Taking Atrocious to Astonishing

Leading people in trouble to believe in their own abilities is a great solution when  given first hand, but an overall obstacle that needs overcome is that many people around the globe have the perception that the world awaits revolutionary ideas to solve our problems – that basic ideas like instilling pride aren’t good enough, even when basic solutions are exactly what is needed.

There needs to be more media about organizations with basic, yet fantastic, solutions like these. One big problem with a solution almost too simple to believe is sanitation; according to the United Nations and the World Health Organization, nearly 40% of the worlds population does not have regular access to basic sanitation.

Sanergy is an organization formed by MIT students and graduates that aims to build sustainable sanitation in urban slums – the problems and logistics are things that they can easily overcome and achieve. The reason their idea is moving up so quickly isn’t that the idea that is so revolutionary – it’s because Sanergy is changing the way that people look at the solution to perceive it in a revolutionary way. They get their idea across quite easily in this video.

“We franchise a dense network of small-scale sanitation centers to local entrepreneurs throughout a country’s slum,” Ani Vallabhaneni, a student at the MIT Sloan School of Management, explained to the bloggers at the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition website.

The Sanergy crew at the MIT competition

Winning the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition is the first of several ways that Sanergy has shown their idea to be successful. Though the program looks to be sustainable in action, the group needs seed money to start things moving. They also took home $5,000 for the audience choice award at the MIT competition, the top prize from the 2011 Walmart Better Living Business Plan Challenge and the Tufts $100,000 Business Plan Competition. In 2010 Sanergy took home the grand prize at the Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition, and a year later at the same competition the group won the Social Impact Award a year later. Sanergy is currently a fellowship finalist at Echoing Green and you’re likely to hear news of their fellowship in the announcement this month.

This kind of success has shown so far that Sanergy has a great idea. The successes they have so far had with that idea on the ground in Nairobi is what proves that it will work. Remember that the end goal is sustainable sanitation in urban slums. Franchising money aside (after all, social enterprises have shown time and again that with even a meager fee involved both parties respect what is being done more than when the benefit comes through free charity), these toilets need to be affordable and turn a profit to sustain themselves. Part of the problem is the cost of the toilets themselves. The group originally aimed at a $500 price tag for each set-up, but currently that cost is down to $200 and they’re constantly working to make the price lower and the product better.

Then comes turning a profit off the collected waste – an idea possibly unheard of or even abhorrent to some, and yet a long-standing fact and part of life for others. Across the United States, even, from Portland, Oregon to Colombus, Georgia, cities have long been reclaiming waste from the sewer system and selling it off as biosolid fertilizer. A urine harvesting project to salvage nutrients began in urban Mexico as far back as 2004, and portable toilet companies have long been realizing profits from harvesting these same minerals. Sanergy toilet set-up create biogas, electricity and fertilizer. Sanergy in turn sells the electricity to the national grid and the organic fertilizer to farmers.

Toilet set-ups in the shop

If you happen to be one of the people that find this harvesting concept to be dirty, well, it can be. If you find it abhorrent, though, then you are exactly the type of person that Sanergy is trying to work with in Nairobi – work that takes the teams efforts beyond their mission. Though the Kenyans in Nairobi realize they have a problem both with lack of toilets, and with overuse and over-filling of existing toilets, Sanergy group member Nate Sharpe passed on to the team the message of the toilet-pit emptiers, that “people turn away and act like we are less than human, even though they are the ones who made what we are carrying!”

This is exactly the attitude that must change if any real progress is to be made, and part of how Sanergy has set out to change it comes again from Nate Sharpe, with his work developing The Sanergy Cycle, aka “The Pedal Powered Poop Pump” which makes the job of emptying toilets cleaner, and easier – another step towards giving people that need help the pride to help themselves.

Working further from this idea, part of the team has now come up with the bicilavadora – a bicycle powered washing machine that looks just like the pedal-powered coffee bean huskers used throughout the world.

Sanergy members and Echoing Green Fellows David Auerbach and Ani Vallabhaneni

For the work they do, the group at Sanergy has and is being praised. They have much success ahead of them that you can expect to hear of through further acclaim and more media – media like the pictures and videos you see here and that you can find on their website. Their latest success was being announced as new Echoing Green Fellows just a month ago, and they have since returned to Nairobi to continue work, as well as sent a team into Mexico to explore options there.

Winning competitions and building toilets in urban slums is all well and good, it’s more than that even.

Having the gall to tackle a subject that, the world around, often turns peoples heads away in disgust, to go beyond a stated mission to work on giving people new understanding so they can see how the world can work better, for them and for everyone, that makes Sanergy truly inspiring.

Robin Canfield - Curator_of_Good

A co-founder of Actuality Media - an organization that takes students to developing countries to create documentaries about changemakers. There are so many more organizations that are deserving of coverage in the world that each week I blog about an inspirational changemaker that I would like to see more media about.

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